13 June 2004

Sudan: Peace in the South, War in the West

By Gwynne Dyer

USaid predicts that 350,000 people will die of hunger, disease and exposure in the refugee camps of western Sudan in the next few months. Back in April Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, was already warning that the international community should be prepared to take steps in Darfur “that may include military action.” But nothing has happened.

Well, not literally nothing. The African Union is sending a handful of observers to monitor the ceasefire that was signed in Darfur in April (though it hasn’t actually stopped the killing). A UN appeal raised $288 million for relief operations in Darfur last week, although that is $80-100 million short of what is needed and the rainy season will restrict deliveries to the camps starting about now. The core of the problem is in Khartoum, however, and nobody wanted to touch that.

The Sudanese president, Omar el-Bashir, still insists that foreign governments are blowing the events in Darfur out of proportion, but low-level flights across southern parts of the province report virtually every village burned out. Over a million people are living in refugee camps (including 158,000 who have fled across the border into Chad), and even in the camps the refugees are not safe, as raids by the Janjaweed militia continue. But at least the United States and the United Nations have finally criticised the government in Khartoum directly.

“I received numerous accounts of the extra-judicial and summary executions carried out by government-backed militias and by the security forces themselves,” said United Nations special rapporteur Asma Jahangir in Khartoum on Sunday. “There is no ambiguity that there is a link between some of the militias and government forces.”

After months of dodging the issue, US Secretary of State Colin Powell echoed her words on Sunday: “We believe that the government of Sudan did provide support to these militias.” He still avoided using the word ‘genocide,’ but he was clearly aware that President Bill Clinton had evaded the duty of responding to the genocide in Rwanda a decade ago by refusing to call it by the right name: “All I know is that there are at least a million people who are desperately in need, and many of them will die if we can’t…get the Sudanese to cooperate with the international community. And it won’t make a whole lot of difference after the fact what you’ve called it.”

Why did the US and the UN wait so long before putting the blame where it belongs? This is where it gets complicated, because the main reason is that they were afraid of jeopardising the deal that is finally bringing peace to the southern Sudan after 21 years of war and at least two million dead.

Every government in Sudan since independence has been dominated by the Arabised Muslims of northern Sudan who account for two-thirds of the country’s population — and almost every one of those governments has spent much of its time at war with rebels in the African, predominantly Christian south of the country. The current fighting flared in 1983 after an Islamist faction got the upper hand in the struggle for power among the northern, Arabic-speaking population and tried to impose Islamic law on the whole country.

Eventually the growing importance of Sudan’s oil — it could be exporting half as much as Kuwait in a few years — and concerns that the country’s Islamist regime had links with al-Qaeda focussed official American attention on Sudan. An adroit use of sticks and carrots by Washington brought first a more moderate government in Khartoum, and now a peace deal between north and south (signed in Kenya early this month) that provides for a ceasefire, sharing of oil revenues between north and south, and a referendum on southern independence in six years’ time.

But other neglected regions, seeing what the Christian south has achieved by revolt, were tempted to play the same game. Everybody in Darfur is Muslim, but there is a deep hostility between the African farmers of the province’s southern river valleys and the Arabised pastoral people of northern Darfur, who traditionally raided the farmers for cattle and women. So the Islamist faction in Khartoum, now out of power and looking for a way to undermine its rivals, urged the people of southern Darfur to revolt, which some of them did last year — and the faction now in power in Khartoum turned the Arabised pastoral people of northern Darfur loose on them.

The Janjaweed militia’s raids on the farming villages are now backed by Sudanese government helicopter gunships, and rather than just stealing cattle and women they murder everyone they can catch, burn the crops and smash the irrigation systems. It is genocide, no doubt about it — but the government that backs it is the same Sudanese government that has pushed the Islamists out of power in Khartoum and is now making peace in the south.

Now, very late in the game, the the US and the UN are starting to condemn the Sudanese government openly, but it’s not clear what they will actually do about it. Overthrow the present lot in Khartoum, and you probably re-start the much bigger war in the south. It’s another problem from hell.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 10. (“Well…that”; and “The Janjaweed…south”)